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Astronauts Discuss Commercial Space Flight, Exploration at Naval Academy

Posted on: January 17, 2013 08:00 EST by Jessica Clark

Family vacation to the moon? A picnic in suborbital space? A Martian sabbatical? While these suggestions may sound like the elements of a science fiction novel, NASA astronauts introduced the concept of commercial space flight - and eventual travel to Mars - as realistic possibilities during a presentation at the Naval Academy Jan. 14.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (USNA ’68) and astronauts Robert Cabana (USNA ’71), Mike Lopez-Alegria (USNA ’80), Stephen Bowen (USNA ’86) and Frank Culbertson (USNA ’71) each had something to say about the history of the space program, from landing on the moon to the introduction of the International Space Station.

“To know about the future, you’ve got to understand history,” said Cabana. “It’s amazing what this country can accomplish when it puts its mind to it.”

But the focus of the presentation was NASA’s future programs and the development of commercial space travel. The NASA team is generating new projects to answer a number of challenges, including President Barack Obama’s call for astronauts to land on an asteroid and the ongoing mission to eventually travel to Mars.

To allow NASA’s focus to reach deeper into space, the ability to travel in lower Earth orbit has opened up to commercial companies, said Cabana.

“It’s NASA’s job to explore. We’re going to explore beyond planet Earth. It’s time to turn lower orbit operations over to commercial companies that are very capable of doing that, that we can contract with to get our crews to the space station, and we can focus our efforts on exploring beyond our home planet,” he said.

Cabana is confident that we will go to Mars, but “we’ve got a lot to learn. I think there are folks in this audience who are going to play a major role in making that happen.”

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program was formed to facilitate the development of commercial transportation to provide safe access to and from the International Space Station and low Earth orbit, said Lopez-Alegria.

“We’re developing a capability here where the user might not be only the United States government,” he said. “In the commercial crew world, it’s a public-private partnership.”

NASA is still involved, but private companies create their own designs which are then approved and certified by NASA before use.

NASA completed its first contracted cargo delivery flight to the space station last year, and companies are already working on designs to carry human beings as well as cargo.

Meanwhile, NASA programs such as the Mars Exploration program design of the of the Space Launch System are working to allow crewed exploration beyond low Earth orbit, with the ultimate goal of developing a permanent human presence in space.

“We need to be working toward the point where the human race can expand beyond earth. We may not always find this planet habitable or big enough,” said Culbertson. “It will take generations, but we have to start somewhere.

“Your generation will be a big part of this,” he said to the midshipmen. “We’ve demonstrated our ability to use technology to go places that nobody’s ever gone before. We should continue to do that. Your generation will take us to these places.

“What I’m seeing is that your generation is becoming our next greatest generation. The veterans that I have seen coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan know how to lead, they know how to be part of a team. Let’s see you become the next greatest generation and take us beyond earth orbit and places we can only dream of.”

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